IdeaFest 2017: Cyberpunk author on rebellions, telepathy and talking with rocks

Louisville native and cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker gestures in front of an image of one of his paintings at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts Wednesday during a presentation about his career and vision of the future as part of IdeaFest 2017. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker envisions a near future in which humans interact via technology-enabled telepathy and a far-off future in which they can communicate with rocks.

Rucker, a professor, mathematician and Louisville native, on Wednesday told attendees of IdeaFest 2017 at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts that unlike other sci-fi authors, he did not worry much about a dystopian future.

Many technological advances have improved humans’ lives, he said.

The internet, for example, allows people to easily communicate with others, prevents them from feeling so alone, allows them to share their thoughts and observations, provides them access to essentially all the information in the world and allows them to obtain it virtually without political interference.

While many people harbor fears about technology, the internet has been a great success story, Rucker said.

Rudy Rucker

“Welcome to the cyberpunk future,” he told the audience. “It’s not coming for you. It’s already here.”

In a talk that covered everything from Rucker’s origins in Louisville to a distant cyberpunk future that involves humans communicating with rocks, the author predicted digital immortality, rejected the multiverse theory and, in a reinforcement of his anti-establishment roots, urged people to continue to rebel against the attempts by the 1 percent to control the masses.

Rucker said the “cyber” part of the term cyberpunk describes the fusion of humans and machines, the early iterations of which he and others noticed in the 1980s. The trend was occurring in both directions: Computers began to look, sound and act more like people, and people were enhancing themselves with technology and computers.

One can think about a cellphone “almost like a cyborg enhancement that you grafted onto yourselves,” he said.

The “punk” portion of the term refers to an attempt by Rucker and others to introduce into the science fiction worlds some characters and themes that, for years, had been neglected. At the time, the genre was dominated by stories about how military leaders and other elites would fare in the future, but Rucker said he and others were more interested in stories about “losers,” unemployed people, women, punks, stoners and minorities.

“I wanted to write about people I hung out with, Rucker said.

And he wanted to inject the genre with sex, drugs, rock and other anti-establishment themes — unlike the clean, “beige” future depicted in Star Trek, in which trash doesn’t exist and everyone wears “pyjamas.”

As long-haired hippie in college, he said he had wanted to write like the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. But he was intrigued by the punk movement, as he harbored lots of anger. Even with a doctorate in mathematics, he had a tough time finding a job, he said. And the ghosts of the Vietnam War still haunted him, primarily because the government “wanted to kill you … and if you don’t go, you’re a coward.”

“You don’t get over that,” he said, putting the auditorium in a somber mood.

Moments later he elicited laughter by pronouncing, “Punk is giving the finger and walking away.”

He released his first novel, “Software,” a term that was not widely used back then, in 1982. Twenty-one novels followed. “Software” and a sequel, “Wetware,” both won the prestigious Philip K. Dick Award.

As a sci-fi author, Rucker said he gets paid to think about what life will be life in 150 years, which is more difficult than it seems, as the speed with which changes are occurring is accelerating. Just remember, he said, that Mark Twain bragged about 150 years ago that he was the first to use a mechanical typewriter to write a book.

It’s tough for humans to even imagine what life will be like in another 150 years, he said, though, some much-needed advances are right around the corner.

Rucker said that humans soon would be able to use their electronic devices much more intuitively than typing with the fingers on a tiny keyboard or using voice recognition.

“Oh, great. I can walk down the street and talk into nothing, like a crazy person,” he said. “The interface sucks, OK.”

Louisville cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker smiles as he stands in front of a family photo displayed during IdeaFest 2017 at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Fairly soon, people will be able to connect to the back of their neck an electronic device that can interpret brain waves, he predicted. That type of connection will move people much closer to telepathy. For someone like Twain, using cellphones already would have seemed close to telepathy: People code their thoughts into words, transmit them with the phone, where the recipient decodes the words back into thoughts.

Soon, when people think of a picture, they can use the neck device to simply send to a friend a link to a section of the brain to retrieve the image, he said. That process, of course, brings with it some problems. One word, he said: Ads.

And, he warned, don’t let anyone implant any such device into your neck, because they’ll want to install an updated version a few months later.

As he has gotten older, Rucker, 71, also said that he has been hit harder by the reality that people who have died are not going to come back — in any way, which is why humans generally like the idea of digital immortality, or the extraction of a person’s information — memories, letters, emails, etc. — into a computer. Replicating the thought process will be difficult, he said, but the computer can function like a chat bot and respond to queries by conducting a search of the available data.

“That’s going to be a big, big industry,” he said. “You’re going to see some activity on that front.”

He acknowledged, however, that progress on the development of artificial intelligence had been slower than some have expected.

“AI keeps being harder than we thought,” he said.

In the distant future, Rucker said he foresees a realization that every object in the world, including rocks, is alive and that if humans can figure out how to communicate with them, they’ll have all the computational force they need.

Rucker, who took photos of the audience to use on his blog, also encouraged attendees to be wary of attempts by governments and elites to try to control people by using the “weird, artificial reality” in which they’re already living.

“Punk” also means not allowing the 1 percent to control the rest of humanity, he said.

“Either you’re a rebel,” he said, “or you’re a slave.”